It used to be cool to talk about Eminem. I’m not so sure it’s still cool, but whatever; let’s talk about Eminem. The big issue, back in the day, was that artsy liberal critics were hailing Eminem’s vicious, profane work as creative genius. Eminem and his flock of intelligentsia admirers upset plenty of people, who angrily cited his gay bashing, mother-raping, etc. lyrics as intolerably hateful.
It’s difficult to assess Eminem’s artistic worth by the quantity of profanity he employs, just as one can’t really denounce all films and literature with graphic violence as hackworks. However, I’m not ready just yet to file Eminem next to “All Quiet on the Western Front” in the annals of great and graphic art. Although I can’t claim comprehensive knowledge of his work, a few of his songs stand out sufficiently to warrant more respect than your everyday hater.
Eminem has been able to sustain an impressively coherent commentary on his work within his own rap. His metamusic has tracked his own journey at every stage and shown listeners the world his work has delivered him. In his songs, he considers his relationship with fans, family, critics, social mores, and addresses other aspects of the interaction between society, art, and entertainment. He takes a great risk and succeeds where so many fail to continually stay more or less above it all, yet completely engaged and present in his art.
In “Lose Yourself,” from the Eight Mile soundtrack, Eminem contextualizes his music and work, as a vicious test, a life or death challenge to create or perish. He tells the story (more or less his own) of an individual who faces the worst obstacles and hardships but fights through them, drawing upon tremendous conviction, energy, and skill, overcoming insecurity and uncertainty to find explosive success. The character’s ability finds drive in rage and thrives in the face of battle. The confrontation does not feel trite or narrow -- his character addresses the very demands of life, effort and success in the face of challenge, and calls upon the deepest wells of creative and expressive power within himself to win a victory. His words indeed perform a task that literature and art should: they portray and share an experience, gracefully relaying strong emotion and insight.
In “Sing for the Moment,” the song that samples from Aerosmith’s song “Dream On” in the hook, Eminem works through several interesting points, and here the weakness of criticizing him purely for portrayal of graphic violence is more visible. He first speaks of a kid in a broken home, the child of divorced and abusive parents, who takes solace in music, and burns on the creative rage spoken of in “Lose Yourself.” This verse is a vivid description of a fractured American family; if it lays any judgment upon that tragedy, it is only that this family has been broken by poor social choices. Those who resent Eminem would lay blame on him for contributing to the problem. However, in this same song and others, Eminem seeks to counter that tragedy, speaking of the challenge and importance of raising his own child, and notes how far removed his edgy music is from his role as a father.
He goes on to reflect on transformation from streetside nothing to celebrity and the feeling that he is the target of hypocritical persecution, but he focuses especially on the charge that entertainers do this work only to boost sales. Surely it boosts sales, he notes, but it’s only a “reflection of self.” Ultimately, this work is a creative, energetic response to vicious pain, and those facing the same pain find precious empathy in it, “cry[ing] at night, wishing they’d die ‘til they throw on a rap record,” and find some peace.
Some of his songs are a bit rougher; I haven’t heard most of Eminem’s music beyond popular tracks. He spends a good bit of time on self-aggrandizement and pop culture commentary, of which he seems to do a fine job. His lyrics can indeed be rather vile. But his ability to carry these two tracks, an ongoing ironic distance and perspective on his art and simultaneous complete engagement therein, and his extraction of explosive and articulate energy from bitter pain, absolve him of complete scorn. They might even earn him a bit of deserved respect.